Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | February 20th, 2020
Balloon (Michael Bully Herbig, 2018) 3½ out of 4 stars.
The German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany, existed from 1949 until 1991, when it merged with the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany, the both halves coming together to once again form a unified German state. It was created in the aftermath of World War II after the occupying forces of the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union split along ideological lines, the former three merging their respective zones into one, leading the fourth to set up its own, rival country along with the other communist nations of what became known as the Iron Curtain. The GDR’s founding was part of the dawning Cold War that would last until the collapse of the USSR and its satellites. Frigid though that conflict may have been, in political terms, for the real people in the thick of it there could be searing consequences, from the everyday torpor of life under a repressive regime (not that the West is perfect) to the threat of imprisonment or execution should they try to escape.
In German director Michael Bully Herbig’s Balloon, the fear of death does not stop two families from making the attempt. Based on the true story of the Strelzyk and Wetzel families who, in 1979, twice built homemade hot-air balloons to flee the East for the West – the first trip ending in failure and near capture – the film offers a gripping narrative of derring-do and innovation, as well as an evocative portrait of the moral rot at the heart of all authoritarian regimes. With excellent performances and fine overall mise-en-scène, Balloon gathers its various plot elements into an exciting climax, soaring above the clouds of thriller convention just as the Strelzyks and Wetzels rise above the border wall of the GDR. Yes, communist regimes are ever an easy target, but with the return of totalitarianism tendencies in Europe (and, increasingly, here in the United States), albeit on the right side of the political spectrum this time, we would be wise to take note of the risks posed by the erosion of civil liberties, even as we enjoy the wild ride of the movie.
Headlined by Friedrich Mücke (StudioCanal’s Weinberg mini-series, aka “The Valley”) and Karoline Schuch (Luther and I) as Peter and Doris Strelzyk, with Jonas Holdenrieder as their (very capable) adolescent son, Balloon plunges us into the heart of the intrigue from the very beginning, intercutting between an ostensibly happy school ceremony for the Strelzyk’s youngest son and scenes of a border crossing gone very wrong. From there, we jump to the evening’s attempted escape, after the Wetzels – played by David Kross (Into the White) and Alicia von Rittberg (Godless Youth) – get cold feet and stay home. Things hardly go as hoped, but the Strelzyks make it back home more or less unscathed, though with a pile of evidence that sets the Stasi, or East German secret police, on their trail. Will they make it, this time with the Wetzels, before they are caught? If history is any guide, then yes, but foregone conclusion or not, the journey is still an exciting one.
Despite Herbig’s mostly assured hand at the cinematic tiller, there are occasional moments of narrative overselling, such as the repeated use of the editorial fake-out, whereby we are led to believe that arrest is imminent (even if it is not). In one such moment, the police arrive at the door, ready to apprehend, only to have our heroes open that door and we see that they and their would-be captors are in different locations. Jonathan Demme used this technique to great effect in The Silence of the Lambs, but here it feels played out by the end. Such sequences notwithstanding, Balloon is otherwise successful in its storytelling ambitions, delivering a taut tale of high-stakes adventure that leaves us on the edge of our seat until its final, moving moments.